Narcolepsy is often described as feeling more than just tired and may include some worrying symptoms like hallucinations. It’s estimated that one in 2000 people suffers from this condition. Some families might be more predisposed to narcolepsy than others but it’s not a genetic disorder, per se.
Unfortunately, the triggers that cause narcolepsy symptoms remain unclear as of this writing. There is a possibility that a specific type of narcolepsy is associated with low hypocretin levels. But it might not be the only cause.
Regardless of the underlying causes, this neurological condition can seriously affect one’s life. This is why it’s worth taking a closer look at narcolepsy and some of the most common symptoms.
Continue reading for more details including the various treatments.
What Is Narcolepsy?
The neurological condition which affects wakefulness and sleep control is better known as narcolepsy. Those afflicted feel abnormal sleepiness during the day. In addition, they can fall asleep repeatedly and involuntarily in the middle of any activity.
Under normal circumstances, people slowly go from one sleep stage to another. And in about an hour and a half, normal people reach rapid eye movement (REM) deep sleep. However, things are quite different for a narcoleptic.
Narcoleptics go straight to the REM stage even when wide awake. As you might know, it is during REM sleep that we dream or experience muscle paralysis. This explains some of the narcolepsy symptoms like hallucinations and lack of muscle tone.
The first signs of narcolepsy usually appear in late teens or early adulthood. In fact, a lot of narcolepsy cases remain undiagnosed and untreated. It’s a good idea to seek medical help as soon as you spot some of the alarming symptoms.
Types of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy can be categorized into two types.
This type of narcolepsy includes cataplexy and low CSF hypocretin-1 levels – some patients might have no hypocretin at all. These symptoms are coupled with excessive sleepiness during the day.
Cataplexy involves an unexpected lack of muscle tone during wakefulness. Those afflicted can feel their knees buckle or slur while speaking. In severe cases, complete paralysis may occur. It’s worth noting that people with low hypocretin have type 1 narcolepsy even if they don’t suffer from cataplexy.
Type 2 narcolepsy is just abnormal daytime sleepiness without cataplexy. People who suffer from it might feel refreshed after a quick nap. However, this feeling doesn’t last long as they become sleepy and tired soon after.
While the first symptoms usually occur in late teens and early adulthood, they can appear at any age. They usually start with daytime drowsiness which may escalate if untreated.
These are the most common narcolepsy symptoms:
Abnormal Sleepiness During the Day
A hard-to-control urge to sleep at the wrong time is one of the hallmarks of narcolepsy. However, many people feel tired and sleepy during the day for a number of different reasons. This makes it hard to diagnose the condition in its early stages.
Other prominent symptoms like muscle weakness, hallucinations, and cataplexy might take years to develop. In addition, narcolepsy might be confused with other sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea.
However, if a person falls asleep all of a sudden in the middle of an activity, it is one of the surest signs of narcolepsy.
Hallucinations are one of the most terrifying narcolepsy symptoms – vivid dreams which feel so real that some people even report smelling, tasting, and hearing things which are not there.
If the hallucinations come with paralysis, things can get even worse. There have been reports of demon or alien sighting and the victims couldn’t do anything to save themselves.
Similar to daytime sleepiness, hallucinations are also associated with some other conditions.
REM-phase paralysis is nature’s way of preventing us from getting injured during deep sleep. The problem with narcolepsy and paralysis is that it occurs at the wrong time. It can happen when the patient is awake, such as at the moment of waking up or falling asleep.
Like hallucinations, narcoleptic paralysis feels quite frightening and debilitating. On the bright side, it lasts only a few seconds or minutes – though it might well have felt like forever to the afflicted person.
A temporary and uncontrollable loss of muscle tone is characteristic of cataplexy. The common trigger of this narcoleptic symptom is a heightened emotional state such as extreme happiness, stress, or anger.
The intensity may vary from as mild as a slight eyelid droop to as severe as losing control of the limbs or the whole body. During a cataplexy attack, people’s speech might become slurred and they can even collapse due to the loss of muscle tone.
The frequency and pattern can vary. Some experience several attacks a day, while others may only have a couple of them in their entire life. Like with paralysis, episodes of cataplexy can last up to a few minutes.
Poor Memory and Sleep
Paradoxically, about 50% of narcoleptics struggle to sleep well during the night. They may often wake up and have troubles going back to sleep.
Not being completely awake during daytime activities also affects memory. There may be memory gaps due to sleepiness and they often occur during activities which are not cognitively demanding.
There is no singular cure for narcolepsy but there are treatments can help. They include following a well-thought-out daytime schedule, taking moderate amounts of caffeine, and taking naps.
Medications that promote wakefulness are also prescribed in some cases and antidepressants can help with hallucinations and cataplexy. These drugs may come with some side effects like nervousness, agitation, nausea, and loss of appetite. A qualified psychiatrist would know how to tweak the dosage to balance the treatment and side effects.
Narcolepsy is a condition that can wear a person down and it might be hard to diagnose. But there are some contemporary methods like polysomnogram and the multiple sleep latency test that can confirm the condition.
You’ll know it’s time to visit the doctor if you notice any of the narcolepsy symptoms above. Keep in mind that narcolepsy is a rare condition, so your fatigue and vivid dreams may just be the results of a stressful lifestyle.